Finding Your Personal Capitol Hill Yoda

One of the most humbling parts of Capitol Hill is that so many of the top staffers started near the bottom. Many have answered phones, written constituent mail, stormed the halls of Rayburn getting signatures on a “Dear Colleague” letter — and then the right opportunity came and they were promoted to bigger and better things.

So how can that same experience happen for you? This week’s Hill Navigator question focuses on how to find a mentor to guide your own career choices. A good mentor can offer more than just effective advice — he or she can also serve as your eyes and ears for job openings and opportunities. So here is Hill Navigator’s take on how to go about finding people who can help.

Q. Any tips on finding a mentor? I know it's great to have one, but they are difficult to find.

Most people in D.C. are willing to give advice — for free — and talk about their experience. The trick is finding the right time, right people and right opportunities to make that happen. Here are a few ways to reap the benefit of mentorship without sending your would-be advisers running from your formal request for a mentor-mentee relationship.

  • Don’t assign the mentor label. I am borrowing a phrase from Eric Dezenhall about finding a mentor: Choose a mentor, but never let him or her know they’re your mentor. Don’t be a pain in the ass and try to formalize the mentor relationship by burdening that person with a job they don’t want. 
  • Don’t aim too high. Sure, the chief of staff of your office might be a great mentor, but so is the White House press secretary, except his schedule might be a bit busy. Start with people who are near your level. They’ll have more time to invest in working with you and are likely to give you advice tailored to your situation. The last thing you want is a platitude-laden conversation with someone who is too high up to have worked closely with you or know your strengths.
  • Take advice when you can. You don’t have to set up a formal “advice-giving” time. Talk to interesting and insightful people when you come across them. Perhaps it’s at an alumni reception, softball game or happy hour. If you find someone who is willing to chat about his or her job experience, then be a willing listener, no matter what the time of day.
  • Be grateful. So let’s say you follow each step of Hill Navigator’s advice and you find someone who is willing to impart wisdom, maybe even offer to help set you up on a few informational interviews and speak to you again about your career. The best way to keep that person around is to be grateful for the time they spent. Follow up with a thank-you note or email (Hill Navigator has some thoughts on that too) and vow to remain friendly and appreciative, no matter where you go.
The hard facts of Washington mean that situations change; some people move up while others stay in the same spot. Keeping an appreciative outlook toward those who offered to help you out early on will benefit you tremendously, no matter how high you go.